San Diego Country melds superb topography with an even better climate
By: Ted McIntyre
At about 10C on this sunny November day at Maderas Golf Club in North San Diego County, the locals are finding it somewhat chilly—three-layer-chilly. Not to mention abnormally breezy. The 30 kph winds that I consider a tad blustery are downright gale-force for my playing partner, who claims it’s the windiest he’s ever seen it at Maderas.
As though God once set the climate control on “Perfect” and then forgot to switch it off, golfers in these parts have apparently gotten used to teeing it up in idyllic conditions since San Diego Country Club was founded in 1897. There is, of course, the notorious “Grey May” and “June Gloom,” Southern California terms for a weather pattern that results in cloudy, overcast skies with cool temperatures during the late spring and early summer. But the sun shines here about 260 days a year. And with a paltry 10.4 inches of annual rainfall—only two inches more than Phoenix, Arizona—the odds of a round being washed out around here are mighty slim.
There are few better marriages of Mother Nature and nature itself than Maderas Golf Club, 45 minutes north of San Diego International Airport in the town of Poway. Blessed with a fantastic natural, rustic setting of cliffs, rock outcroppings, creeks, forest, waterfalls and inland hill country, the architectural tandem of Johnny Miller and Robert Muir Graves probably tripped over each other in racing to sign the contract back in 1998.
I quickly noticed that the Callaway rental sets lack a 60-degree wedge, but the staff kindly fetched me a demo model…and thus ended my attempts to find fault with any element of Maderas. One strong, unique hole followed another on this dramatic terrain—little wonder that it is among Golf Digest’s Top 100 Public Courses in the U.S. And while the sticky Bermuda grass grabbed my greenside wedges like I was chipping off chilled molasses, the odd deer and eagle sightings offered a pleasant diversion. As did the short, tempting, slightly uphill par-5 14th, with its thin saddle of fairway surrounded by gaping bunkers, and a rocky crevice awaiting brave souls seeking to find the green in two swings.
Four more superb holes followed on its heels, culminating in the dogleg-left 18th, with a nearby mountain range kissed by the pink setting sun and a putting surface flanked to the left by a huge bunker, with water ingesting balls missed to the right or long.
We hung our cleats for the week at the five-diamond Park Hyatt Aviara in Carlsbad. Voted the top golf resort in San Diego by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler, the Hyatt drips in luxurious little touches, from the sparkling adult pool complex that overlooks the valley below to the “Good evening Ted McIntyre” message on my TV after the turndown service, to the personal wakeup call that includes today’s forecast, to the fireside spread of tea and edibles in the spa’s co-ed lounge. That said, the most indelible memory was cozying up to a pair of Don Julio Reposado tequilas after dinner and taking in the soulful strains of seriously talented Aussie native Lee Coulter, a regular in the Hyatt lounge on Tuesday nights.
The Arnold Palmer design just down the hill picks up where the Park Hyatt leaves off. Host of the LPGA Tour’s Kia Classic the past three years, Aviara GC melds the manicuring of a waterfall-filled botanical garden with a choice piece of constantly flowing land laced with Torrey pines and eucalyptus trees, among a bevy of other plant species. Multiple bunker complexes and sloping greens throughout provide sufficient obstacles, but it’s the sheer esthetics of the place that really commands your attention.
The opening hole sets the mood, with the left side lined by the Batiquitos Lagoon—one of the few remaining tidal wetlands on the Southern California coast. The plunging 14th is emblematic of a few of Aviara’s scenic par-3s, with a two-tiered waterfall feature and pond fronting an immaculate, vast billiard table of a green. No 18, meanwhile, is among the region’s finest finishing holes, protected to the left by the lagoon, and to the right by a pond all the way to the green, leaving the daunting task of threading a drive through the seam to keep your round from coming unglued.
And whether it’s for a post-round beer or something more elaborate, allow me to recommend Aviara’s Argyle Restaurant. Admittedly, I’m not sure whether my opinion was more coloured by the menu’s prime beef offerings, which included cut-it-with-a-spoon Japanese Wagyu steak at $16 an ounce, or the statuesque 20-year-old blonde hostess Alexandra, who, five months out of Romania, could double as a Bond girl on the side.
Seeking a slightly more economical tour of seaside Southern California, but with all the trimmings of something more elaborate? The Crossings at Carlsbad can be had for under $100 on weekdays. Framed by the Pacific Ocean less than a mile away to the west and rising foothills to the east, it’s technically a municipal golf course, but everything about the conditioning, the thrilling tumble-ride of holes and the exceptional cuisine in the stylish 28,000 sq. ft. clubhouse—not to mention the estimated $62.8 million US it cost to build the place—screams upscale semi-private.
Named for the five bridges, or crossings, that were designed to accommodate existing environmental and topographic conditions, the Greg Nash design is nestled amongst the natural habitat and wildlife on more than 400 acres of coastal terrain. The environmentally sensitive area—it took nearly 20 years of city officials working with environmental groups and state lawmakers to see the project to fruition—means there will never be any homes bordering the course.
The front nine is relatively flat, leaving it more susceptible to the ocean breezes, while the back side offers a variety of dramatic terrain. The extensive facilities, meanwhile, boast a lighted practice area and access to The Crossings Trail, a three-mile round-trip walking path that links with the Carlsbad’s extensive trail system.
If you suspect your equipment might be holding you back from truly appreciating these facilities, Callaway Golf headquarters in Carlsbad offers the public the most thorough 90-minute clubfitting you’ll ever experience for just $150, including a free dozen of top-of-the-line balls on your way out.
Those looking to do more of a family bonding exercise, if you’ll pardon the pun, can connect at nearby Legoland California, with its 60+ rides, shows and attractions, including Sea Life Aquarium and the world’s first Legoland Water Park.
An ideal home base for the excursion is the adjoining Sheraton Carlsbad, which offers a private entrance to Legoland California Resort and is also across the street from The Crossings.
Apart from its noted vineyard cuisine—happily accompanied by a viticulturally sophisticated staff, particularly our server Stephanie, who swiftly matched our tastes with the perfect bottle of red—the Sheraton’s Twenty/20 restaurant also provides exceptional panoramic Pacific Ocean views on its patio.
And yes, there was barely a breath of wind, and nary a drop of rain in the forecast.